Last March, Spring Break. I can feel it coming as I leave the city limits on my way to a long-planned vacation with the kids. It’s a growing sense of trepidation, hovering over me, threatening like a black wave, trembling in place, poised to wreck its ruin. It overshadows everything, swirling up like plumes of cumulonimbus on the horizon. Two hours creep by like the sucking drag of tree sap over a trapped insect. It feels like six. Every minute I pray desperately for it to just hold off until I can reach the hotel. I listen to worship music in my earbuds. I sing to Jesus under my breath as the kids talk and laugh and I clamp numb fingers over the steering wheel, trying to hold back tears. I am torn between turning around or keeping on, not knowing how bad the episode will be. Perhaps I can make it and the vacation won’t be ruined.
I’m halfway there now. If I can just get to the hotel and check in, I can fall in bed and shiver and shake and weep and hopefully fall asleep and wake in the morning with my brain recovered enough for me to make the four hour return trip tomorrow. I already know the vacation is ruined, but that’s simply another guilt to add to all the others from the burden I’ve become to my family. (The whispered words of the enemy; I battle them with Romans 8:1–There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.)
The hovering breaks its holding pattern and begins to sweep toward me, an unstoppable tidal wave. I can’t hold back the tears now. My twelve-year-old, Rhu, sitting in the front seat, notices something is wrong and asks if I’m having a brain attack–what we call my breakdowns so they know it’s not caused by them but rather the chemical imbalance in my brain. (The term “mental illness” is a misnomer in my case–bipolar disorder is a physical illness caused by my physical brain.) She prays for me. I check google maps for the nearest gas station as I begin to realize I won’t make it. It’s so close now, a malevolent presence appproaching from behind, and my hackles rise, terror gripping me like a vice. I try to fight it, praying for mercy, but I have nowhere to go because you can’t escape your mind, and I can see its shadow growing larger and larger, swallowing up the logical side of myself until I feel its breath on my neck and–
The psychotic break crashes over me.
I can tell immediately it’s not like the others. My brain literally snaps and shreds. That’s what I believe. Like a serpentine belt in an engine, or a computer crashing after a virus, my gears have bent and twisted, my hard drive erased. The psychosis has finally sucked my mind into a black hole of insantiy, crushed that ever-present logical side into oblivion, the one that tells me it’s impossible for a brain to shred. That it’s just my neurons misfiring, my overwhelmed, broken brain boiling over, that I just have to wait for it to pass, as I’ve done what feels like countless times before, to the point where I’ve almost forgotten what it was like before the breakdowns.
I pull over into a gas station, begging God to allow me to make it outside the car before I completely fall apart. I mumble to Rhu to watch Ian, Rowan, and Ivy, that I’ll be okay, I just need to call their Dad. Stumbling out of the car in a daze, I dial Campbell’s number with shaking fingers as I pace in front of a small building at the back of the gas station parking lot about ten yards from the car, gasping and sobbing. I don’t want the kids to see me like this, but I also won’t leave them.
Sadly, they are used to this by now.
But this…this is different. And it only makes the terror rise up and clamp over me harder.
“I can’t do this,” I tell Campbell over and over as soon as he picks up. “I can’t do this anymore.” I am repeating myself. I know I am, but it’s all I can get out.
“Mandy, where are you?”
“I don’t know, I don’t know.” He waits patiently as I check google maps again and tell him what I can. He calms me enough to get through the maelstrom my thoughts have become to register that he will drive down there right now and get me. This alleviates the episode a tiny amount, like skimming the surface, taking off a thin layer of the knuckles mercilessly squeezing my mind, boiling me down to the crazed snaps of a cornered, wounded animal.
I will still have to wait two hours.
…How? I feel as if I can hardly wait two minutes because I have shattered. I am in pieces.
For the first time, I consider going to the Emergency Room. But what will happen to the kids? What will that kind of experience do to them?
And I know if I do that, I will be committed. Mandatory 72 hours. My greatest fear. I can’t go to a psychiatric ward. I can’t. God, please.
Campbell tells me to call my psychiatrist and then call him right back.
I call my psychiatrist’s office and he calls me back on his cell phone almost immediately. I tell him what I am feeling and what I told Campbell and he assures me a human brain cannot shred.
I realize he is right. Of course a human brain can’t shred. That is ridiculous.
The Lord uses this to break the power of the insanity and restores my logical side. The insane side is still there, just as before, foaming and writhing, but now I have the logical side too. I calm down enough to check on the kids, assuring Rhu I will be fine.
But I know I will not be fine. Not for a long time.
What I really mean is, I will survive. But I don’t tell her that.
All of the trauma over the past six years has broken me over and over, from my terrifying experiences with Post Partum Psychosis where I was hallucinating and hearing things (and far worse experiences I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to publically speak or write about) in 2013, to Campbell’s cancer diagnosis in 2015, to five miscarriages, to losing my grandfather and both in-laws, to severe digestion issues since 2017, to the normal ravages of bipolar disorder, and many other jabs and slices like a thousand paper cuts over open wounds. The nonstop trauma has emptied me, drained me and bludgeoned me, beat me down into a pulp, peeled me open into a bed of exposed nerves without giving me time inbetween to grow new skin…
But the Lord has sustained me, friend, just as he did that day on the side of the road at the gas station. I hope you can see now that what I’m telling you is not a Christian platitude, it’s a foundation—my foundation—Christ Himself.
It’s now been three months since that episode, during which I’ve been on medical leave from work due to mental illness. We’ve told hardly anyone the extent of the episode and why I’ve retreated from the world. How could I explain anyway without going into all of this detail? It’s as if I suddenly became a paraplegic, but my disability is not physically observable, so no one can see the damage or understand its extent and why I am unable to function at a “normal” level. But praise God I have begun to strengthen enough to the point where just last week Campbell and I thought I’d recovered enough to dip my toes back into the waters of “the real world.”
Turns out I’d jump into the deep end instead.
Last night I had just grabbed my keys to go buy some dinner, when I heard a knock at my door. It was my young neighbor. She looked distraught. I invited her in and we spent the next two hours at my kitchen table as she shared a recent struggle. I hadn’t seen her in months due to my “house arrest,” so I was also able to share a little about that with her and we reconnected and had a wonderful bonding experience. I invited her to church and a women’s group my twin hosts. She is precious. Please pray for her.
Afterwards, I was emotionally and spiritually exhausted. Despite this, I didn’t regret it, because I knew it was a Divine appointment. (Be warned, friend, not all open doors for ministry are from the Lord.)
Still. I was disheartened by how little I had to give before utterly draining myself.
Then this morning I visited my boss for the first time since March. We talked and caught up and laid out a plan. While I am grateful for her grace–so grateful!–I came home and, totally overwhelmed by how much I suddenly had on my plate, another breakdown came.
Not anything like the psychotic break, but just like then, I’ve felt it coming for days now. The plunge back into the real world just broke the dam holding it all back. This time it was only heart-wrenching weeping, the kind that leaves me torn and ripped apart inside, like the twist of a buried blade. But praise God, at least I didn’t have to crawl into bed and wait for it to pass, or take emergency medication again, or pull over on the side of the road and retreat from the world for months–or even worse things I’m not quite ready to talk about yet.
I’m in a lot of pain right now, but it’s almost a relief. At least the terrible waiting is over.
This is only the beginning though. Next will be a long bout of depression of varying potency. I know this because I just expereinced a few days of hypomania last week (during which I created this blog, which is typical for me when I’m manic–creative, energetic, hopeful, willing to try things I would never normally try…), and every time after a manic episode, which lasts anywhere from three to seven days, I experience a sudden crash into deep depression, typically clinging to me for four to six weeks. Sometimes it’s longer. Like the four month stretch I just experienced with no break from January 1st through mid-April.
I’ve come to expect it. Not in a pessimistic way, but as a form of submission and acceptance.
During the four times I’ve been in labor, my mom taught me not to fight the pain, but to accept that the next contraction would come, to expect it, to let the pain roll over me and just breathe with it, and it helped me to focus, remain logical in the midst of the agony, and not be swept away by it.
Praise God for my mom and her wisdom, and the trials of labor. It taught Campbell and me how to fight alongside of each other, and it’s helped me so much with mental illness because labor is actually very similar to bipolar disorder. Pain. Pause. Pain. Pause. Pain. Pause. Except there’s no baby at the end and it’s a life-long disease. This sounds incredibly morose, but it’s true, friend, and that’s okay.
You see, with Christ there is a different kind of new life born from this agony–it’s a unique ministry and a drawing closer to Christ–and unlike with labor, it can happen during the pain and not just after. How amazing! And even if the disease is life-long, with Jesus, healing is always a question of when not if. Life-long isn’t eternal life-long. As my mom told me some months ago, there is a bottom to every cup of suffering for the believer. At one point it will be drained. So even if Jesus doesn’t heal me supernaturally, as I pray for often, once this present darkness and fleeting shadow of life here on earth melts away before the unending dawn of Eternity, I will be healed forevermore, and the Lord Himself will wipe away every one of my tears.
So this time, today, in this moment, I have confidence. I have peace. I also have fear and doubt and know I will fail at times during this next bout of depression…
But I also know that with Jesus, courage follows fear, doubt gives way to faith, and He has the miraculous ability to turn every one of my failings into victories, for even when I am unfaithful, yet He remains faithful. I know the Lord has given me over to this affliction, but I am still in His hand, and I know He is and will do mighty works through the suffering He has called me to. For I have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to me. I am afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in my body. For I am always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in my mortal flesh. So death is at work in me, but life in you. (2 Corinthians 4:6-12)
Anxiety and depression still cling to me, but I will dig into the Word that much more and cling to Christ, my firm foundation. By His strength, I will let go of despair and not be moved. I’ve learned His grace is sufficient and when I am weak, then I am strong. I’ve learned the secret of being content in want and plenty. This is my thorn and I will continue to ask for healing, but not demand it. My prayer is no longer, “Take it away, Lord!” but that of Joseph; that He would “make me fruitful in the land of my affliction.”
May you be blessed, friend.